It’s easy to guess what Willard was like as a boy: Trapped in a cavernous, elaborately decorated house and forced to dress as if every day were Sunday, the pale, awkward kid probably didn’t have friendsand he certainly wouldn’t have been allowed to have pets. But Mama would have insisted that that was OK. And it’s a good thing, too: When Dad dies and Mom gets sick, you don’t want the new man of the house to have spent his youth screwing around with turtles.
Writer and first-time director Glen Morgan wisely uses our assumptions about the Man Who Loves Rats to turn his remake of the 1971 cult classic Willard into a blend of pared-down story and exaggerated character. After the darkly whimsical, Tim Burton-esque animated opening credits, the movie begins with a cry from Willard’s unseen mother: “Willard! There are rats in the basement!” The flurry of eccentric family members that clogs up the start of the original might have further colored in Willard’s loser lifestyle, but Morgan knows that we’re really here for Ben.
Willard (Crispin Glover), at first suggesting that the noises Mother (Jackie Burroughs) is hearing are “just the wind,” dutifully makes a trip to the hardware store. The shop’s harsh light and tinkly background music work to make the white-faced, wide-eyed Willard seem even more alien, setting him apart as he tries to sort through his rat-control options. The pests outsmart the simple traps he initially chooses; by the time he finally nabs one with sticky paper, their plaintive cries and expert evasion techniques win Willard’s sympathy and respect, earning the white rat a name, Socrates, and a promotion to leader of the packmuch to the consternation of a rival rodent and eventual traitor, big fat Ben.
Willard’s growing affection for the rats is easy to understand. His mother is a horror of a housemateBurroughs is made up to be a repulsive walking skeleton who needs to know what Willard is doing at all times, even when he’s in the bathroom. And his evil boss, Frank Martin (R. Lee Ermey), is equally cartoonishand equally loathsome. A former partner of Willard’s dad who commandeered their widget business after he died, Martin promised that Willard would have a job for life, but he never said he wouldn’t make it miserable. Willard’s constant tardiness and clear disdain for existence in general are easy targets for Martin’s rage, and former Marine Ermey tears into his ass-handing dialogue with withering force.
The movie, though, belongs to Glover. A smoother-acting Willem Dafoe, the raven-haired actor has a face that’s all angles, dotted with a sharply carved nose rivaled only in oddness by the famously botched proboscis of a certain rat-ballad recording artist. The camera doesn’t shy away from the actor’s weird looks; instead, it frequently zooms in or captures him from just above or below to emphasize his spectacular concavity. From the beginning, Willard seethes in his oppression, but Glover belies his severe, dark-suited demeanor with a gentle and hesitant voice that only hints at the damaged nutjob within.
Willard, who has been secretly training his growing legion of rats to obey commands such as “In,” “Out,” andmost important”Tear it,” no longer has to hide his new group of friends after his mother dies. Simultaneously burdened and freed by her death, he cracks under the emotional and financial pressuresalong with the inkling, though it seems to merely scurry across his psyche, that a grown man regularly sleeping with a rat just ain’t right.
Morgan makes the modern Willard’s depression a little more obvious than his predecessor’s, with a suicide attempt and straight-out confessions to Socrates (“I hate everyone but you!”). So Glover gets to have a little fun with Willard’s self-loathing, blowing up at an estate attorney’s suggestion that he sell the house and start over with an exasperated, “Start over? I’m almost done!” And after Willard passes that inevitable point of no returnwhich, because the film’s a briskly paced 100 minutes, doesn’t take longGlover explodes into outright villainy. The actor seems to delight as much as the audience in the ability of Willard’s four-legged army to eliminate annoyances as big as a tyrannical boss and as small as a yapping dog.
Viewers looking for outright horror, however, will likely be disappointed. The new Willard is to be commended for keeping the gore to a minimum, especially because the number of victims has increased slightly. And though the first rat attack happens early and subsequent incidents are evenly spaced enough to give the movie a better arc of suspense than the original’s, the film’s ultimately nothing more than a campy lark.
In this spirit, Willard 2003 makes several sly winks to the old version, including a framed photo of a grown-up Bruce Davison, the first Willard, and a hilariously directed sequence in which a cat, given to Willard for company after his mother dies, paws a remote control while trying to escape the rats and turns on the radio, filling the room with “Ben.” And even Willard purists will give props to Morgan’s impressive handling of his furry actors: From Socrates’ sweet love to Ben’s defiant misbehavior, it’s incredible how much can be divined from a steady close-up of a quivering rat face. Of course, any sympathy we might feel when eye to eye with a solitary rodent is erased when the numbers are multipliedat one point, Willard’s neck-deep in ’emeven if the discomfort never really reaches fright-flick levels. But with so much else going for Willard, who really gives a rat’s ass? CP